Is Obama’s Coal Moratorium Too Little Too Late?

Current leases will allow mining to continue on federal land for at least 20 more years.
Coal is stacked at the base of coal loaders along the Ohio River in Ceredo, West Virginia, in May 2014. (Photo: Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
Jan 15, 2016· 1 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

Burning coal for energy is the single greatest contributor to climate change.

So the Obama administration’s moratorium on issuing new coal mining leases on federal land, which account for 40 percent of coal production in the United States, seems to be good news.

Digging into the numbers a bit seems to support that, even though the moratorium covers only new coal mining permits. “The mines that have reserves already under lease will continue to mine,” Neil Kornze, chief of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, told reporters on Friday.

“The collective picture on that shows that there is already 20 years of supply already in industry hands,” he said, along with up to 18 leases at some stage of the federal permitting process that won’t be covered by the moratorium.

Based on current rates of production, the U.S. Energy Information Agency has estimated that the U.S. will produce 21 billion to 23 billion tons of coal between now and 2036, depending on economic conditions. Coal production dropped about 10 percent from 2014 to 2015, hitting a 30-year low, according to the EIA, because of competition from lower-cost natural gas and renewable energy as well as stricter emissions requirements.

According to an analysis published a year ago in the journal Nature, the U.S. (as well as fellow coal producer Australia) must cap coal production at 20 percent of reserves, and leave the other 80 percent buried in the ground, for the world to have some chance of averting catastrophic climate change.

That means the U.S. can mine about 57 billion tons of currently recoverable deposits. That would leave about 33 billion to 36 billion tons left for mining after the current leases expire. The great unknown is how much coal would be permitted to be mined on federal land under any revised rules implemented by the next president. A Republican president would likely end the moratorium.

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The pause in permitting should last about three years, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell told reporters on Friday, while the agency conducts a new environmental analysis on the effects of burning coal on the environment, the climate, and public health, and then applies those costs to what it charges mining firms in royalties.

The royalty rates are expected to rise substantially to account for the costs of sea level rise, more destructive storms, changing weather conditions, and other impacts of climate change—although they may remain below what the “social cost of carbon” would be on the free market.